Set in a port, probably Kobe, in Western Japan, it was August, hot and humid. The unnamed hero “Boku” (informal “I” in Japanese) is home from University in Tokyo where he is in his final year studying biology. Three summers prior he met and made a very close friend who went by the nickname “Rat”. They met every day in summer when Boku came home spending their evenings at Jay’s bar, run by the gregarious but well spoken Chinese immigrant, Jay. Rat complained profusely about everything and Boku always patiently listened.
One day Rat didn’t show up. Boku called his house and a woman answered. Boku, bored, ended up finding a pretty young woman drunk on Jay’s restroom floor. He and Jay decided he should take her home where she revived enough to undress (completely) and fall asleep. She was missing a finger on one hand. Boku stayed with her and let her sleep until morning. When she awoke, he explained what had happened and, half disbelieving him and irritated and embarrassed, she let him drive her to work where she told him she thought he was the lowest sort of man.
Boku, seemingly unfazed by this, spent the next week drinking alone at Jays. Back home, he received a call from an American Bandstand type oldies program DJ who said someone had dedicated him a request and if he could remember her, he would win a T shirt. He remembered her and that she had loaned him a Beachboys album he had not returned. He promised the DJ to buy her a new one.
He found the 4 fingered woman working at the record store. She thought he was stalking, but he convinced her he was only buying records. He tried to be friendly but she remained hostile. He searched for the girl who called in his dedication but she had quit college and disappeared.
Rat told Boku of his dream to write a novel. Boku had advised him he should write and Rat became obsessed with the idea. His characters would neither die nor engage in sexual relations in his novels (Rat thought these devices contrived. Probably he was one of the contemporary haters of the realistic novel. Certainly Murakami seems to have been so through to pleasant enough effect). Rat was frantically reading Moliere, and James and Kantatzakis.
Unexpectedly, the 4 fingered woman called Boku to make amends. Clearly she liked Boku (and he her) but Boku is, well, sort of passive. (As child he was particularly uncommunicative). She invited him for dinner the next night and he went.
Rat asked Boku to visit Rat’s home to introduce him to the woman he was seeing, but when Boku came Rat said they had split.
Days passed and Jay told Boku that Rat had wanted to talk to Boku but found it difficult. Here Jay alluded to something problematic (if forgivable) in Boku’s character that Boku has hinted about but never quite shows us. Perhaps his intense passivity/fatalism. Jay says Rat was sad because Boku was soon leaving. The summer idylls Rat cherished were ending even though they would still be friends.
Boku took Rat to a nice hotel (a standard hang out in urban Japan – remember “Lost in Translation?”) and they came to terms. Boku let Rat know he cared.
Boku met the 4 fingered woman. They walked by the dockside one evening so fair and watched the harbor lights (must be Kobe). He got her to talk about herself and to laugh. Then she cried. She had lived a sad life, rejected by an ill-fated, dysfunctional family. They spent the night together. She asked Boku if he minded if they did not have sex. He did not mind and they just lay together until morning. He said he would see her in December when he came back for his birthday. She had breached his shell of isolation.
He never saw her again. She disappeared (again, very Japanese). But that period when he came out of himself to reach out to Rat and the 4 fingered woman was the pivotal point in his life. He married, lived in Tokyo and stayed friends with Rat.
Inspired by Derek Heartfield (Why do I think of Holden Caulfield) a fictional 1930’s SF-pulp writer of very Ray Bradbury-like stories (The Wells of Mars), Boku writes of his epiphany, the manifestation of which the reader is reading. He never quite confesses to an epiphany. Like Derek, Boku realized time relentlessly devoured memory (Ozymandias, anyone?) Derek never wrote about what mattered to him personally. His writing was a weapon and his enemy time. He killed himself dramatically in protest of his inability to preserve what he treasured. Boku opts instead to write of what he would preserve. But he leaves half the story unwritten for you to write.
Dr. Zunshine would love this book. Boku said “I have only told one lie” and you know it is on the page somewhere, but he never tells you what it is. There is much Boku neglects to tell us about himself, leaving us to try to understand his reports of the often hostile and inexplicable reactions of others to him. The reader begins to realize Boku is not disclosing everything important about his characters. Who is the Radio request girl? Why did Boku’s lovely 3rd girlfriend kill herself? Why Boku’s obsession for counting things?